Legendary Dalston café Arthur’s never shut during the Blitz bombing
- Credit: Archant
Café owner Arthur Woodham tells Emma Bartholomew how his business survived the Blitz, rationing and gentrification – and how, aged 89, he still serves customers every day.
Arthur Woodham is adamant that his eponymous café Arthur’s has barely changed since the family business opened 81 years ago – even though four generations of East End families have been through its doors in that time.
His father, the original Arthur, bought his first café in Kingsland Road, near the Geffrye Museum, off a friend in 1935. Three years later, when Arthur Jnr left school at 14 – the legal age in those days – he joined his dad in the shop, following the tradition of eldest sons taking over family businesses.
Arthur, who will be 90 on Christmas Day, still serves customers and prepares food every single day, and says it is “his life”.
The Gazette caught up with him on a Wednesday afternoon, once the café had emptied after the lunch hour rush – but he was still on call to make sure the ham was not boiling over on the hob.
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His 86-year-old wife Eileen cooks the food up fresh, and the weekly menu consists of steak on Monday, stew on Tuesday, shepherd’s pie on Wednesday, liver and bacon on Thursday and chicken on Friday.
Arthur remembers how “cafs” before the war were “old fashioned coffee shops”, with tea and cake and dripping. But once war broke out and food was rationed, they started doing “proper dinners”.
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“Mostly it was snacks like egg and chips or ham, egg and chips like we do today,” he said.
The café never shut throughout the Blitz, because “if you shut, your living is going to go”.
They were “blasted out” twice by two bombs, however – one in Nuttall Street that “killed a lot of people”, and another that landed on the bomb shelter at the Geffrye Museum where Arthur claims you can still see two brown lines on the grass.
“Sometimes people would be having dinner, and they would say, ‘There’s the doodle bug,’ and everyone would duck under the table because you didn’t know where it was going to drop.
“As soon as the noise stopped, you knew it was going to drop somewhere.
“People’s spirits were alright. When the all-clear went it all went back to normal. We just carried on again.”
Just as the food that individuals could buy was rationed, so were the shops.
“We were allowed about 30 shillings a week meat. My dad did spam and chips and all that,” he recalls.
“People got together more in those days.
“You would go down the air raid shelter and there were different families but they spoke to each other and all that. It seemed to get the people closer.”
Arthur remembers how before the Second World War his father used to make his own sarsaparilla drink and strawberry and vanilla ice cream out of eggs and milk, which a machine would dispense between wafers.
“They used to call it a mixed wafer. It was good because it had to be good, didn’t it – you made it yourself.
“After the war there were a lot of these people making ice cream, and a couple of children got ill and the sanitary people got quite strict. Let’s say it was so strict you couldn’t make it any more for hygienic purposes.
“After the war you had to have special licences to make it, and a lot of the shops couldn’t do it so they had to bring in Wall’s.”
Arthur opened up his own branch further up Kingsland Road 60 years ago, close by Dalston Junction.
“It’s the same, but we used to have marble-topped tables then, and this is granite,” he said.
“Cafes don’t alter much. Not my shop, anyway. I’ve had customers for 40 or 50 years. Don’t forget we’ve been in the road a long time.”
One of his longest standing customers is Terry Dunfred, the father-in-law of Linda Robson from Birds of a Feather, who also dines there.
“I’ve been serving near enough four generations of his family,” said Arthur. “You meet different people all the time.
“All the people know it around here. It’s been in the road so long. It’s like a meeting place.
“It’s still the same, the East End community. The property has gone really expensive around here, but it hasn’t affected me.”
Arthur admits he sometimes gets tired but generally he “feels alright”.
“You’ve got to like what you are doing and if you like doing it you make it a success,” he said. “It’s my life, to keep up the tradition.
“If I didn’t want to do it, I wouldn’t be working until I’m 90.”